Rap on Trial: Race, Lyrics, and Guilt in America

New Pr. Nov. 2019. 224p. notes. index. ISBN 9781620973400. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781620973417. CRIME
Works such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow have examined the pervasiveness of racial bias in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nielson (liberal arts, Univ. of Richmond) and former assistant public defender Dennis (Univ. of Georgia Sch. of Law) look closely at one of the ways this bias occurs, documenting cases in which rap lyrics, introduced as evidence, had an effect on or even determined the outcome of a trial. The authors do not argue that defendants in these cases are always innocent, but rather that rap lyrics are unique in being used in this way; while other genres of music have had their days in court, they have not been used as evidence that a defendant actually committed a violent crime. Their explanation is multifaceted: juries are often comprised of people who don’t understand rap (including its propensity for hyperbole), prosecutors use rap lyrics to help secure a conviction, and expert witnesses are often anything but. An introduction by rapper Killer Mike expands on how rap is often treated as autobiography instead of art—another way the criminal justice system perpetuates injustice.
VERDICT An urgent call to action. Recommended for anyone concerned with social justice, which should be all of us. [See author spotlight on p. 109.]

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